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MOTOGP: SUZUKI—FROM NOWHERE TO THE TOP OF THE PODIUM, PART ONE
Jan 19, 2017

motogp, suzuki, davide brivio, maverick vinales, aleix espargaro, andrea iannone, alex rins, GSX-RR

Photo courtesy of Suzuki-racing.com

Suzuki is one of the smaller manufacturers involved in MotoGP, especially when it comes to resources, yet it was able to swiftly go from nowhere to the top of the podium in five short years.

The 2016 MotoGP season was a watershed year for Suzuki. Despite it being a year of consolidation for its MotoGP program that had its first steps only 12 months earlier, Suzuki was able to swiftly become a major contender in the championship, culminating in rider Maverick Viñales winning the British GP outright. With a hand from Davide Brivio, the alma matter of this project, we review the process that took the Suzuki from design plans on a computer to the top of the MotoGP podium.

Although Team Suzuki officially joined MotoGP in early 2015, the GSX-RR project was brewing much earlier. "I officially joined the Suzuki project for the World Championship on April 1, 2013, but already during 2012 we had some contacts. Suzuki retired from the World Championship at the end of 2011 when they had already made a motorcycle for 2012. This motorcycle I never saw, but I think it was a V-four. That is, there was a motorcycle ready for 2012, but Suzuki decided not to proceed."

And what was the reason for them not to continue?
"I don’t know the official reason for that decision. But it was curious, because already in the official statement of their withdrawal in 2011, they announced that they would return. During 2012, Nobuatsu Aoki did some testing in Japan with that prototype, but at the same time they also started the new project, which would lead to the current bike."

Starting off from a blank slate?
"Yes, starting from a blank slate. The engine, for example, was changed from a V-four and went on to be a inline-four, and the chassis was also completely redesigned."

A radical change then.
“So much so that the first time we were on track with (Randy) de Puniet at Motegi in May 2013, Suzuki brought the old 800cc and the new MotoGP bike. In November 2011 Randy had tested on Monday after the Valencia GP on that bike and our engineers thought about starting over from that point. I remember seeing the old 800cc and the new 1000 side by side in the box, and how it surprised me how much larger the 800 was compared with the new one. The 1000 was much more compact. It was perfectly clear that it was a completely different project, everything was different."

motogp, suzuki, davide brivio, maverick vinales, aleix espargaro, andrea iannone, alex rins, GSX-RR

Photo courtesy of Suzuki-racing.com

Team Suzuki Ecstar manager Davide Brivio has overseen much of the factory's amazing effort since Suzuki's withdrawal at the end of the 2011 MotoGP season. The veteran manager left a coveted position within Valentino Rossi's inner business circle in order to take the position at Suzuki.

And in that test, what was the comparison in performance?
"There was no comparison because there was only one or two laps with the new bike. Randy needed to regain some confidence; then we start testing with the other, the new one."

2012, a necessary pause

Suzuki had used 2012 as the year to put to the track the bike that Davide Brivio first saw in April 2013. "With the perspective given over time," Brivio comments, "it was probably a good idea to retire at the moment that they did. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been possible for Suzuki to continue to participate in the championship and carry on with such an ambitious undertaking."

One year for such a revolutionary project seems like very little time...at least not enough to define, design, and build. “It is possible, but by April the bike was ready. We did the shake down with Aoki and Tsuda, and then in May the first test with Randy de Puniet at Motegi. We started to map the route from there that would take us back to 2014. We had 7 or 8 months, certainly not very long."

And how was that phase?
"I have to say that development did not go badly. In fact, at one point we decided to go to Barcelona. It was something that was not planned, but we improvised it; It was our first trip to Europe. We tested the Monday after the GP and Randy finished 0.7 seconds from Lorenzo. I remember we left there very happy because it was a great result ... But the rule change that forced to use the Magneti Marelli ECU sent us back to ground zero. Our bike was still working with Mitsubishi electronics, so we saw we would have to redesign all the software. So in Japan they decided to postpone the return to the World Championship for a year to have enough time to work with the new Magneti Marelli program. That change of plans was due to the electronics and not for any problem with the bike."

Did you share the Japanese engineers’ opinion at that time or were you more for getting out there into the competition?
"I confess it was a bit of a disappointment; it was disappointing for everyone because we all wanted to go to battle. But it was obvious that we didn’t have enough time to prepare the bike. We took another year."

With hindsight, was it a wise decision?
"Looking at it now, I think it was a good decision. First, because we could work for a year with the electronics, and that was important. Second, because it gave us access to a different rider market. If we had joined the championship when planed, we wouldn’t have been able to sign Maverick (Viñales), for example. Returning to MotoGP in 2014 would probably have complicated things. I admit that was not what I thought then, but I see that now after seeing everything that happened.”

motogp, suzuki, davide brivio, maverick vinales, aleix espargaro, andrea iannone, alex rins, GSX-RR

Photo courtesy of suzuki-racing.com

After completely redesigning its MotoGP bike from a V-four to an inline-four, Suzuki hired Randy de Puniet to help develop the bike. After deciding to hold off on a return in 2014 in order to understand the new spec Marelli electronics, they entered the final race in Valencia as a wild card but suffered from reliability problems.

Yes, but two years of testing without competing ... How does that go over with a group that has formed to compete? It must have been strange.
"Yes, it was a long wait for everyone, although I have to say that the second year we couldn’t take advantage of it as we expected. The rain seemed to follow us to every test that we made, independently where in the world we were. For example, we went to Argentina and we did not have a dry ride, it rained the two days. We went to Austin, and after the spectacular sun that showed up the Sunday of the race, the next day was cold, the track dirty... No, we couldn’t take much advantage of the time. Then in September we went to Mugello and started to have some problems with engine reliability - they broke. Randy also had a big crash and it cost him a little to recover. So, at the beginning we had rain and in the end technical problems, it was a year that we did not accomplish too much."

2014, a complicated debut

Did you reach the end of 2014 with a clear future or with clouds on the horizon?
"At the end of 2014 we were satisfied in terms of our riders, because in July / August we had confirmed Aleix and Maverick. In terms of the technical aspects, well ... When we entered as a wild card in Valencia in the last GP of the 2014 season we had big problems with the engine. They broke and I confess that made us very worried."

And what was the mechanical problem?
"In Japan they know. At Valencia, as a wild card, by regulation we had three engines; Saturday night we had already broken two. For Sunday we had one engine for the race and on the second bike we had the fourth engine, which if we used, would have forced us to start from pitlane...so, I repeat, it was a complicated weekend.
But I have to say that the engineers in Japan did a great job during the following winter. When we arrived at Sepang for the first 2015 preseason test with Aleix and Maverick, the situation was much better."

Was it necessary to sacrifice power for the sake of reliability? Did you have to redesign some aspect of the engine?
"The problems seem to be linked to the electronic management, so we worked on that part; nothing had to be redesigned. And as for the power, yes, in 2015 our performance at the beginning was not the best because trying to solve the reliability sacrificed something. The bike was very good with the chassis right from the start, but we suffered a lot in speed."

One of the features of the GSX-RR from the outset was its compactness. The Suzuki was a very small bike! In fact, too small for Aleix.
"Yes, but even so Aleix liked the bike from the first moment. He came from Team Forward, a Yamaha. Yes, of course, from a previous year's chassis, but a Yamaha chassis is always a Yamaha. As soon as he tested our bike he said that chassis-wise it was better than the Yamaha. We realized that our bike was good.
What we were lacking the first year was engine power. Our engineers worked hard to get a lot of torque to make it easy to ride, but we were too low at full power. By 2016 we could increase the maximum power without sacrificing the torque and the delivery progression. I have to say that in this aspect the introduction of the seamless [gearbox] change has also helped a lot."

motogp, suzuki, davide brivio, maverick vinales, aleix espargaro, andrea iannone, alex rins, GSX-RR

Photography courtesy of Suzuki-racing.com

The signing of young Maverick Viñales proved to be a prescient move by Brivio and Suzuki, with the talented Spaniard proving to be a rising star by quickly making the Suzuki competitive in 2016.

The rearguard in Japan

The group of MotoGP technicians on the project in Japan, are they young engineers or are they people who have already guided Suzuki's interests in the races of the past?
“It's a mix. Our project leader had already worked in 250cc. There is Ken Kawauchi, our technical manager, who was working during the Team Rizla's era. There are people with experience. I have to say that during these years in Suzuki I’ve been able to see that they have a lot of know-how. The engineers are good, they have vast knowledge and a lot of technical experience. With them the important thing is to tell them precisely what you want, what you need, that the goals are clear. If you tell them I want a motor with 10 more horsepower, they work on that; If you tell them, ‘I want a more progressive engine and the power doesn’t matter,’ they do that. I think our shortcomings in 2015 were a consequence of the objectives we had given engineers, not that they weren’t able to make a fast engine. We worked a lot on ease of riding, on the progressivity and didn’t pay too much attention to the power. When we measured against our rivals we then saw that it was not enough."

You speak in the plural, "we didn’t pay attention to the power". Who are the persons who communicates the needs to the engineers in Japan?
"The Project Leader does, after listening to the riders and analyzing the data ... I have worked with different brands and I know that in all race departments there are different opinions among engineers. If you speak with two or three engineers on a particular aspect of a motorcycle, you will probably hear three different ideas. That’s why the Project Leader has to be the one to choose with direction to take, after analyzing what the engineers say and what they see."

Has the trajectory over the two seasons that you’ve had in MotoGP been as you expected? Has it gone faster than expected, or slower?
"If I have to be honest, I must confess that in the first season we did not reach our goal. When I was in Japan to talk to the ‘big boss,’ he asked us to finish the first season in the top seven and we didn’t make it; we finished 10th and 11th. So we didn’t achieve our goals. I think with a faster engine the first year we could have made it."

Was there disappointment in Japan? Did it have consequences?
"No, the truth is no. Maybe we missed the target but I think 2015 was a good season anyway. Above all during testing: we were first and second in Barcelona, Aleix was on the first row in Argentina and Assen, some races we were in front in the first part of the race, but then we lost positions. In my opinion, the result was due to our lack of power. They passed us on the straight in the first few laps; we suffered a little more for that."

It sounds like the "culprits" of not meeting the targets by 2015 were technicians who failed to analyze or understand needs.
"We didn’t do an analysis of who was the cause. It was not a matter of pointing the finger at anyone. In addition, in 2015, after 2 or 3 races we realized the enormous talent that Maverick had. We understood a little more that at the start of the following championship, we had to do everything possible to get him to stay with us after 2016, the season his contract with us would expire. We focused all resources on improving the motorcycle and the engine because we had to convince Viñales to stay in the team. This was sort of ‘the mission’ that guided us in 2015.”